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Head West young men! Thar's gold in them thar hills!
Readers may think ESPN has an East-coast bias, but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, for the third straight year, the NCAA has absolutely packed much of the potential NBA talent in the elusive NCAA West region, or, as they're calling it this year, the Phoenix bracket.
This year you can check out the only consensus anything in the draft, Emeka Okafor, or see a pretty impressive group of small forwards and guards whom NBA scouts are in love with. Even the lower seeds have players NBA scouts are keeping their eye on.
Insider talked to multiple NBA scouts and GMs to give you a look at the Top 5 NBA prospects they'll be watching in each NCAA region. Today, we finish our look with the West.
West Region NBA Prospects
1. Emeka Okafor, PF, UConn
The Skinny: 6-foot-10, 250 lbs, Junior. 18.5 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 4.5 bpg, 60 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Just about everything. Okafor is physical specimen. He's strong, athletic, quick, and a very good leaper. Okafor's bread and butter is his defense. He's a big-time shot blocker and a very aggressive rebounder. In the past he's struggled some on the offensive end, but this year he's been dominant there, too. He's developed a nice 10-foot jumper and has been looking for his shot more. To top it off, he's extremely smart and a very hard worker. Most scouts consider him the most NBA-ready prospect in the draft. The comparisons to a young Alonzo Mourning don't seem that far off.
The Bad: Very little. Height is a small issue. Scouts are praying he's a true 6-10. Some believe he's closer to 6-8, but I can't see that. I've stood next to him on several occasions, and he looks like he's the full 6-10 to me. The back is a bigger concern. Okafor has a hairline fracture in his back right now that's causing him enormous pain. Scouts and GMs are always very wary of bad backs. Once you get them, they rarely go away. His free-throw shooting is pretty bad, and his perimeter game still needs some work.
The Ugly: Unless there is something seriously wrong with his back, Okafor will be either the first or second pick in this year's draft. It just depends on the team. Several lottery teams no longer have the patience to wait on Okafor's only real rival, prep star Dwight Howard. A team like the Bulls or Suns would definitely grab him with the first pick.
2. Ben Gordon, PG/SG, UConn
The Skinny: 6-3, 200; Junior. 18.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, 44 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Gordon is a big-time scorer who knows instinctively how to put the ball in the basket. He's an excellent shooter, especially from 3-point range and is a top-tier athlete with great lift and lateral quickness. He also has good strength for his position. Gordon is a good, but not great, passer with pretty good court vision. He knows how to find open teammates but dominates the ball a little more than some scouts would like. The fact he almost always plays under control also helps his cause. He's a good rebounder for his size.
The Bad: Is he a point guard or isn't he? That's still the big question on everyone's mind. He seems to have the skill set, but does he have the mentality? Reminds some scouts of the Pistons' Chauncey Billups. He really had an up-and-down year, which concerns some scouts.
The Ugly: Gordon's draft stock has taken a small hit the past few months. It could just be the product of over-analysis or unrealistic expectations. He can't answer the point guard question on his own, because his coach won't let him. Gordon is one guy who could gain a lot through an awesome tournament. If he can lead UConn to a national title, especially with Okafor ailing, he'll immediately stop the slide. Right now he's looking like a late-lottery to mid-first rounder, but there's room for him to move up.
3. Josh Childress, SF, Stanford
The Skinny: 6-8, 205; Junior. 15.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 49 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: He's an outstanding pro prospects because of his long arms, athleticism, and guard-like skills at his size. He reminds some scouts of former NBA great George "The Ice Man" Gervin. He's a pretty complete package. He can shoot both the mid-range J and the 3-pointer. He has excellent ball-handling skills and can play the point-forward position. He's an excellent rebounder and good shot blocker for his position. He's an amazing defender because of his combination of lateral quickness and huge wingspan. When he's guarding players on the perimeter, it's like having a 7-footer on them. He has shut down several of the best players in the nation. He possess very good athleticism and is a heady type of player.
The Bad: He's very thin and looks a little fragile at times, both physically and emotionally. He's a bit of a finesse player. Can get down on himself and lose his confidence. He could be more aggressive. At times he'll take over a game, at other times he'll fade into the background a bit. However, recently that's started to change, and Childress has begun dominating games.
The Ugly: He's one of the hottest names in the draft right now. He got off to a slow start because of injuries, but he's been great lately. Had a big 36-point, 11-rebound performance against USC and a 29-point, 12-rebound game against Oregon in the past month. Scouts believe he'll test the waters, and if he does, don't be surprised to see him crack the lottery. There are very few people in college basketball or the NBA with his full complement of skills. Strength and aggressiveness are the only things holding him back at this point. If Childress goes off and leads Stanford to a national championship, he could theoretically be the first small forward taken in the draft, especially if Duke's Luol Deng doesn't declare.
4. Hakim Warrick, PF, Syracuse
The Skinny: 6-8, 215; Junior. 19.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 51 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: He's probably the most athletic big man in the draft. Warrick can jump out of the gym. He improved in almost every aspect of his game this year. He added a nice mid range jumper to his repitoire. He put on some weight and muscle and found ways to score down low. He's very, very quick, posing matchup problems at both the small forward and power forward positions. He gets to the line a lot.
The Bad: No one is sure exactly what position he would play in the NBA. He doesn't have the perimeter or ball-handling skills to really be a three. He doesn't have the strength or low-post moves to excel at the four. Despite being so long and having great hops, he doesn't really block shots. Scouts wonder if he's the second coming of Darius Miles, an athletic big man without a go-to skill.
The Ugly: He's all over the board. Some scouts think he could be a very good four, because of his length and quickness. They believe he'll get stronger once he gets on an NBA strength training regiment and be just fine in the post. Very few of them see him having much future at the three. Warrick will be very hard to project, because he's really an "eye of the beholder" type kid. Someone like Isiah Thomas will love him. Someone like Larry Bird probably won't. He could go anywhere between the late lottery to early 20s.
5. Julius Hodge, SG, North Carolina State
The Skinny: 6-6, 191; Junior. 18.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 51 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Don't let his wiry frame fool you. He's a great, tough athlete who can be absolutely fearless taking the ball to the hole. His passing skills are above average, leading some scouts to believe he could make the transition to the point in the pros. He's shooting an impressive 51 percent from the field this season and has a knack for drawing fouls.
The Bad: His perimeter shot, heavy turnovers and his defense are the biggest question marks.
The Ugly: Hodge is one of the most improved players in the country and has watched his stock skyrocket over the past few months. Expect Hodge to go in the late teens or early 20s if he declares.
Sleeper: Rafael Araujo, C, BYU
The Skinny: 6-11, 280; Senior. 18.2 ppg, 10 rpg, 57 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Araujo has been one of the most dominant college centers on the offensive end in the country this year. Physically he's huge and very, very strong. He uses his strength to bulldoze opponents in the paint. He's an aggressive rebounder, sometimes a little too aggressive. His solid frame allows him to hold his position in the post. He runs pretty well for a big man. A pretty good free-throw shooter. Plays with a passion that we rarely see in big men.
The Bad: He's just an average athlete. His lateral quickness, leaping ability and overall agility leave something to be desired. His aggressiveness often gets him into early foul trouble. He's not a great shot blocker for his size. Was destroyed by Okafor in the tournament last year, leading some to question how well he'd fare in the league.
The Ugly: Some considered the native of Brazil a late first-round sleeper last season, and he's improved in all facets of the game this year. A recent fight in the Mountain West tournament in front of a host of scouts actually helped his cause. Teams are desperate for big men with a little fire in their belly. Expect him to go somewhere in the second half of the first round.
Others to watch: Charlie Villanueva, SF, UConn; Kennedy Winston, SF, Alabama; John Gilchrist, PG, Maryland; Matt Freije, F, Vanderbilt; Denham Brown, SG, UConn; Gerry McNamara, PG, Syracuse; Delonte Holland, SG, DePaul; Andre Brown, F/C, DePaul; Ramod Marshall, PG, Dayton;Darren Brooks, G, Southern Illinois; Mike Williams, F, Western Michigan
We've had a pretty solid discussion this week about the NBA's youth movement, it's effect on college basketball, the NBA draft and the direction the league is headed.
I typically get between 150 to 250 reader e-mails a day. This week I've easily averaged 500-750 a day. Many of them that I didn't quote were insightful and interesting ... I just couldn't publish them all.
There are a few more e-mails I want to get to as we wrap this subject up for the time being. Let's start with Matthew who thinks reconfiguring the rookie scale (less experience, more years under contract) could actually open the floodgates even more to teenagers.
The idea of tying rookie-scale contract length to age is an interesting one. However, I fear it will only provide an incentive, in this salary-cap conscious world, for GMs to draft younger players. Having a high school or young international prospect locked up at rookie wages for six years can be a boon under the salary cap; drafting an established senior who could be lost to free agency after two years is risky. So I think your plan cuts both ways. It provides a mild incentive for players to stay in school (although it presumes a lot of farsightedness; even a rookie contract looks good to a kid who isn't even allowed to have a paper route under NCAA rules), but a HUGE incentive for teams to draft younger players. And for my money, the No. 1 incentive for a young player to come out is the likelihood that he'll be drafted early on. I vote no.
--Matthew Schwartz, New York
It's a great point Matthew. In the interest of full disclosure, the idea is not mine, but the brainchild of several GMs that I interviewed for a David Stern story in December. So, it makes sense that the plan clearly has other benefits for them.
The truth is, many GMs, especially those in the lottery, are afraid to take a project. Fans have an attention span of about two to three years. If a player hasn't developed by then, he's basically written off as a bust, and the GMs job is on the line.
GMs have a real fear that young projects like Pavel Podkolzine and Andris Biedrins will take too long to develop, and the team will have to make a long-term financial commitment before they really know what they have. Indiana was stuck in this scenario last fall, when it gave Jonathan Bender a $40 million extension based on ... well, nothing on the court.
So, sure, the move is a win-win situation for the GMs. It gets some of the young players out of the draft and provides extra safeguards should they enter the draft. Now you know why they think it's a winner.
Here's another interesting idea that may have some merit. Jordan claims the NBA should take a page out of the NHL's handbook.
How about this idea for the NBA? Establish a relationship with the NCAA like the NHL has with colleges and minor leagues. Have the players come out in high school (or after their first, second, or third year or even after college) and be drafted. Have the NBA teams pay the scholarships (even add some living money) and let the kids play for Coach K, Roy Williams, Tommy Amaker, whoever, for 3-4 years (whenever that kid feels he's ready to go). That way, you solve three problems: The roster space on clubs could still go to veterans, not projects; college basketball would be enriched by these players staying in college (for example, does anyone think Ndudi Ebi should be in the NBA, riding the pine, or, say, getting ready for the NCAA tournament?); and third, it would allow universities to save other sports by taking the money tied up by basketball scholarships and use them to preserve, say, wrestling or field hockey. This seems to be a win-win situation for all sides.
Jordan Acker, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Hmmmm ... I know some old school GMs who would love this idea. There are definitely two camps in the NBA right now: Those who are invigorated by the new trends and have set up state-of-the-art scouting operations to get a handle on everyone on the globe; and those who liked how things used to be. The NBA used to have a very comfortable relationship with the NCAA, and more than one of the older league executives still refers to the NCAA as the NBA's minor league.
The league has been quietly pushing the NCAA for years to change its eligibility requirements on players that leave school early for the NBA. If a player was allowed to return to school, drafted or undrafted, the need for a minor league would go away.
The NCAA would get to keep many of its stars. College players would get security early on that, if drafted in the NBA first round, their money was guaranteed when they decided, along with the team that drafted them, that it was time to come and play in the league. Drafted players would get a stipend to help them get through the lean years. Both NBA and college rosters would include more veteran players if the league and NCAA could agree to the system.
It's an interesting idea. I think the NBA Players Association would have a few issues with it. Who decides if a drafted player goes to the NBA or stays in college? The union would want the players to have the final word. The NBA would surely want teams to make the call.
Your proposal doesn't address international players, but I think there's a much easier answer for them. Teams should just quit promising young Euros that they'll draft them in the first round. International players are allowed to hire agents, and most agents won't keep a player in the draft unless they get guarantees their client will be taken in a certain range. If teams would stop that nonsense, I think most young Euros wouldn't risk slipping.
Ga'ash in Philly thinks players are better off getting out of the college system.
I think you forget to mention what I feel is the main reason scouts want to pull kids out of college, or before college, into the NBA -- players develop faster and better in the pros. The NBA's competition, facilities, top-notch trainers, and the amount of time players get to focus on their game pales in comparison to anything college has to offer. Look at the facts: Half of the league's superstars were drafted out of high school, and practically any player worth anything was drafted before his senior season. The real stars with the real potential would be wasting their time in college, and both the players and scouts know it.
-- Ga'ash Soffer, Philadelphia
There are a lot of NBA coaches who agree with you, Ga'ash. Despite their complaints about a steady diet of unproven, inexperienced kids in the draft, they also recognize the college game is not the NBA game.
Some college programs discourage players from lifting weights or playing a certain style of basketball that works well in the pros. A college coach isn't trying to turn his players into pro prospects. He's trying to turn his players into a team.
While coaches may gripe about the flood of teenagers into the NBA, almost all concede that a young talented player with a good work ethic will progress much faster in the NBA than he would in the NCAA or Europe.
There's an old theory that playing against the best makes you the best. I think even Larry Brown would agree Darko Milicic is better off not playing in games and going up against Ben Wallace in practice every day than playing in Europe's pro league or in college.
Reader James thinks NBA teams are drafting the big kids early out of necessity.
Ever notice one problem with basketball today is the disappearance of the great low-post center? I always had a theory on it. I notice great center prospects come out of high school every year and go to the McDonald's All-Star game, but none of them do anything in college. I think college has committed a fundamental breakdown, since none of the big men who come into college ever develop. How many McDonald's All-American centers, or any American centers, have developed in college and made it to the NBA with good skills? The names that pop into my head are slim and none. Joel Pryzbilla? Fringe player. Dan Gadzuric? Fringe player. I remember when those two guys played at the McDonald's High School All-Star game. They have not changed a thing in their games or ever even improved. Something is wrong.
James Houston, Ocala, Fla.
There's a definite trend to what kind of young players get taken in the lottery. With very few exceptions, they are young, athletic players who are 6-foot-10 or taller.
Why do they come at such a premium? Because they are almost non-existent in the college draft, and you're right, James, many college coaches don't have great résumés when it comes to developing bigs.
If you look at the 29 starting centers in the NBA today, only one, Shaquille O'Neal, was a dominant college player. The best of the rest got their start internationally or came straight to the pros.
College coaches will respond to the argument by claiming the league cherry-picks all the good big men before they have a chance to play in college. And both sides will concede that the truth is, America just isn't growing big kids with great basketball skills right now.
But still, it's a point well taken.
To wrap things up, Biff's take on things gets pretty close to what I believe.
Personally, as a rabid NBA fan, I'm enjoying this period in the league's history. To watch Stern do his thing and reshape the NBA into a product with an international fan base is fun. To me, the real problem would be NOT sending dozens of scouts to countries like Yugoslavia and missing out on some great players. International competition is only going to get better, and that is something basketball fans will have to get used to. Plus, it's kind of fun to imagine that someone has 'discovered' a 7-foot-5 Russian playing in a small town in Italy.
--Biff Jones, Washington D.C.
Of all the things I do in my job as NBA Insider, there's nothing I love more than the draft. Maybe it's the mystery ... the blank slate that every team works from each year.
Isn't it amazing that the Cavs and Nuggets were the two worst teams in the league last year, and now they're playoff teams based, in large part, on two great draft success stories -- LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony? By conventional standards, both kids were really too young to play in the league, but both had special qualities that allowed them to transcend the status quo.
There's no question a scout's job in the NBA is 10 times harder now than a decade ago. That's OK. They're well paid, stay in the finest hotels in the world and have amazing per diems. Trust me.
As far as the fans' distaste for the whole thing -- that's partly the media's fault. Many media outlets have been slow to get on the bandwagon and give fans accurate and meaningful information about high school and international players. When I left for Italy on my first trip to scout Euros almost three years ago, I went because I had a deep curiosity about all of these names I would hear on draft night.
Hubie Brown's TNT draft night commentary of, "He's an interesting kid with a lot of upside," wasn't enough for me, and it shouldn't be for you. Hopefully, for those of you who feel the same way, you've found a home on Insider.